The controversy over the Bradford Literature Festival will only harm Muslim women
By Guest Contributor
26th June 2019

by Aisha Ali-Khan

The sixth annual Bradford Literature Festival starts this week and its bigger and better than ever before. With 500 writers, 400 events and thousands of visitors expected over 10 days, it has become the 'Tourism Event of the Year'. The fact that is was founded by two local British Pakistani Muslim women, who wanted to help people fall in love with books and improve literacy levels, makes it more of a draw.

This year the BLF has found itself facing awkward questions over funding. A few weeks ago Bradford-born poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan dropped out as she didn’t agree that part of BLF's funding came from the 'Building a Stronger Britain Together' government fund. Although this does not come under the the controversial Prevent strategy, it is still part of the 2015 counter-extremism strategy and funds more than 230 groups. Some these are local community centres, arts organisations and BAME women related projects.

Since Suhaiymah’s announcement, further writers and activists have pulled out and some have now decided to hold an alternative event instead.

The Prevent Strategy has come under fire repeatedly for singling out and demonising the Muslim community, especially young Muslim men.

BLF founder Syima Aslam said the funds were used to carry out "important work with women’s community groups" which included a local project to promote literacy among local BAME women across Bradford. Basically the money was used as a one-off to plug gaps in delivering short range projects and services that local councils and local communities are failing to provide.

The government’s austerity measures and cuts have obliterated services for the most marginalised and stigmatised of groups. The impact of sacrificing free literacy classes for BAME women has been felt even more keenly in inner city areas such as Bradford. Without such classes, mothers cannot help their children with their homework, share bedtime stories or even read letters or fill in forms for themselves. Literature festivals and projects such as BLF are wonderful in helping people fall in love with books, poetry and arts.

I am finding it impossible to discuss the BSBT funding for BLF issue without also addressing these other issues too.

Yes, as a former English teacher, I am perhaps not unbiased when I say that literacy skills is the single most important factor in helping to break cyclical intergenerational poverty and tackle low aspirations and achievements. Yes, BLF has tried to engage with many different communities and has done great work in breaking down barriers.

But there still remain pockets of BAME women that need support and will be the main ones losing out when similar work cannot go ahead because of funding issues.And now, we don’t have people coming forward from the community themselves and offering to fund such projects.

Some people have taken to social media to unfairly tarnish the entire Festival as some kind of vehicle to spy or gather information, which is completely untrue.

The Festival has brought together a wide range of people who would never have met otherwise to hear each other’s stories in a totally neutral, inclusive environment. It has allowed feminist writers and other BAME writers to enter mainstream consciousness rather than stay on the fringes, where sadly many had languished for years.

I have now attended three BLFs since it started in 2014 and am looking forward to attending some of this year’s 10-day programme, with many events hosted by my alma mater, University of Bradford.

I am more aware than most how hard it has been for Bradford to shed it's drug-and crime-related image (recently reinforced via the BBC3's Hometown), but since 2014 BLF has brought a much needed positive spot light on Bradford and the surrounding areas.

Other local festivals such as the Bradford Fringe Festival have also sprung up, while UNESCO choice of Bradford as the first ever City of Film has further helped to cement Bradford’s reputation as a creative hub.

The alternative event on Sunday also looks interesting, and I am planning on attending. But we cannot afford to ignore the bigger picture; if we really want to take a stand then let’s start by recognising that other structures of oppression exist, and one of them is not being able to write one's own name. See you all in Bradford next week!

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